Green silk damask
Gift of Mr. Lee Simonson, 1939 (C.I.39.13.211)
Referred to as "stays" until the late nineteenth century, the corset was the basic garment of every woman's wardrobe. It was never worn next to the skin, but over a knee-length T-shaped garment known as a shift. The stays were most often laced up the back but could also have a laced opening down the center front, in which case there was usually a boned stomacher piece that slotted in behind the lacing. The bone running down the center front of the stays was known as a busk.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the stays, which had come into fashion thirty years earlier, were worn long and pointed at the front, sitting over the front of the skirt, with the back of the stays cut much higher. The waistline often featured small tabs at the side and back, which splayed out over the hips and helped to keep the skirt in place.
While early examples of stays were covered in elaborate silks and often featured as a visible part of the dress, they gradually retreated to being mainly an underwear garment, with the outer layers comprised of plain silks or linen. By mid-century, stays featured less boning, and by the 1770s a new emphasis on the bust meant that several horizontal lines of boning, often metal, were introduced to give a more rounded form. The diarist Horace Walpole recorded the dangers of such garments in 1777: "There has been a young gentlewoman overturned and terribly bruised by her Vulcanian stays. They now wear a steel busk down their middle, and a rail of the same metal across their breasts." By the end of the century, stays had fallen out of favor. Fashion now looked to the ideal of the classical Greek figure and natural lines inspired by the vogue for the classical world. Rigid boned bodices were abandoned entirely or replaced by light canvas stays with cording for support.
The production of stays was a male industry due to the heavy-duty work involved. They were made from several layers of linen or canvas treated with a paste to stiffen them and then hand-stitched with vertical and diagonal channels into which strips of whalebone were inserted. The whalebone, also called baleen, was not actually bone but came from the roof of the whale's mouth; this would also have to be cut into strips by the staymaker. In France, trade restrictions meant that until 1776, only tailors were permitted to make stays; however, after this date couturieres (female dressmakers) were also allowed to produce these garments.
For less wealthy women, stays were still an essential item of clothing. In rural areas, stays were often made from scored leather and worn as an outer garment, offering support to those involved in manual labor. In urban areas, large secondhand markets offered a wide variety of garments for those who could not afford to have their stays specially made.